Traumatic events always leave us in a never-ending loop of regret, depression and scenarios that could exist within a different parallel universe. They can cause the breakdown of relationships and keep us from ever healing from the event that happened, which is why they can be so devastatingly destructive on the people the trauma happened to. Johannes Nyholm revels in this concept and transcribes it to picture with his Swedish psychological horror film Koko-di Koko-da, which forces it’s characters into a constant cycle of despair and destruction. This isn’t a film that is kind to the viewer and requires an element of patience and understanding in order to truly accept why the film repeats itself over and over.
The perfect family vacation takes an unexpected and horrific twist when mother Elin (played by Ylva Gallon) experiences a severe allergic reaction and is taken ill in hospital. The trip is to celebrate daughter Maja’s birthday, (played by Katrina Jakobsen) but fate has other plans and unexpectedly causes a tragedy halfway through. Three years later and Elin and father Tobias (played by Leif Edlund) decide to take a camping trip together, in order to rekindle what little is left of their deteriorating relationship and try to separate themselves from some of the overwhelming grief that they are still dealing with, even after years of trying to heal. Cursed from the outset, the couple soon realise that their camping trip won’t be the idyllic getaway that they were hoping for.
Grief is an emotion regularly explored through the realms of film, especially within the horror genre. In modern cinema it’s become a central focus point for many highly recognised films including Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, but the use of grief as a horror trope stems further back than just the 21st century. In 1973 Nicholas Roeg gave us Don’t Look Now that showed just how much human emotion can wreak havoc on the mind and in 1983 we were given Mary Lambert’s adaptation of Stephen King’s infamous book Pet Sematary, that portrays how grief can force all logic and sense out of the door, especially when it comes to dealing with the loss of a child. Koko-di Koko-da follows these films in suit and presents the audience with a tale of sadness, with two grieving parents who cannot accept the loss of their daughter, leaving them in a state of constant turmoil that is having an exceptionally negative affect on their relationship. It closely links with themes of Lars Von Trier’s 2009 film Antichrist, and even though not as extreme in execution, it does take a dark, oppressive and outrageous route to look at the emotions throughout the film.
Whilst out in the woods, the couple are unexpectedly interrupted by a motley crew of villainous characters, conjured straight from the nightmare realm of any child’s over-excited imagination. With a ringmaster dressed all in white, an oversized simpleton with fists as large as a man’s skull, a raging woman with a penchant to act violently and an aggressive dog with the taste for blood, it seems that the couple stand no chance of survival against this godforsaken group of characters that seem so out-of-place within the forest, yet completely at home at the same time. Nyholm uses these characters as representations of how grief works and how each element of grief, albeit different, is just as violent and relentless as the last and wears down the person grieving, until they become an unrecognisable bloody pulp. From the offset of the camping trip the viewer has already succumbed to the horrors of grief and understands that in order to survive this trip, the couple must be willing to be violently beaten before they can begin to overcome and heal from the grief that is destroying them.
Koko-di Koko-da holds Elin and Tobias hostage in a tumultuous loop that seems as if it will become repetitive and boring within the first quarter of the act, however, Nyhold doesn’t allow for the boredom to kick in. Instead, he allows for the characters to become privy to the narrative cycle they are imprisoned in and they start to make conscious actions in order to shape the next cycle. It’s through this manipulation of the cycle that the audience begin to see how, only Tobias to begin with, overcomes his internal suffering to change the course of their story and become the white knight that saves his wife from drowning in the thickness of her grief. Although not a ground-breaking concept, and one that’s been seen before, it works well in the film and allows the audience a continuous slither of hope, even if that is ripped apart by the teeth every single time.
This is a distressing movie to sit through, one that doesn’t allow the audience to mindfully breathe and forces them to confront aspects of emotions that as humans we often try to actively avoid. It’s a surreal experience that feels as if scripted by the Grimm Brothers, which makes it unsettling, oppressive and downright nasty at times to sit through, however, there always feels like there is a purpose to what we are watching. A reason that allows us to sit through the repeated violence in order to go on the journey with Elin and Tobias and hopefully overcome the constant choking that stops the characters and the audience from breathing. Compared to other films about grief, this one is about finding a way to surpass and overcome rather than be consumed and crushed by it without their being any hope at the end of the tunnel.
This fantasy film will not be suitable for a large majority of the audience, who will feel tired at the initial repetition and a little disillusioned with the constant feeling of despair and that no escape is in sight. However for those with a more sadistic nature, it’s a psychological film that will allow you to reflect inwards on grief and understand the various concepts of pain that are materialised. Koko-di Koko-da is a bleak and oppressive manifestation of human grief, told through the lens of a violent and hallucinogenic fairytale on a loop.
Out now in the UK on blu-ray and digital release.